iPhone 12 Pro Max reviewSource: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore

Back in 2012, Apple introduced the iPhone 5. For the first time, iPhones no longer had 3.5-inch displays. At 4-inches diagonally, the iPhone 5 was the "biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone," according to Apple. That distinction didn't last long. Eventually, the largest iPhone grew to 4.7-inches, then 5.5-inches. Eventually, we saw iPhones with 6.1-inch and 6.46-inch displays. Then came the iPhone 12 Pro Max with its 6.7-inch screen, which is 0.6-inches bigger than the iPhone 12 Pro.

No doubt, the extra real estate is what brings most buyers to the larger handset. It's why I purchased this year's largest phone, just as I have in past years, and will do so again when Apple grows the iPhone screens again.

Five months after the Pro Max arrived, iMore is publishing a review. The piece in front of you isn't delayed or long overdue. Because of the striking similarities between the two Pro models, we felt our iPhone 12 Pro review was enough to cover the bases for both handsets. Now, a follow-up of sorts is justified because of the passage of time.

First adopters like myself have had months to assess the handset's battery life and whether the new Ceramic Shield front really does provide extra protection. Nearly five months have also given me time to see MagSafe accessories and wireless chargers (good and bad) come to market and decide whether the new charging option is worth it.

A March iPhone review also gives me a chance to look at the iPhone 12 Pro Max and decide whether the "iPhone 13 Pro Max" and its rumored list of features means an upgrade is warranted this fall or a wait until 2022 is a better choice.

Here's our mid-year iPhone 12 Pro Max review.

iPhone 12 Pro Max colors

iPhone 12 Pro Max

Bottom line: Not surprisingly, this is the best iPhone ever made in the biggest iPhone case to date.

The Good

  • Incredible battery-life
  • Flawless design
  • Super-fast specs
  • Best-in-class camera system

The Bad

  • Drab colors
  • Frustrating MagSafe
  • Glass back

The total package

iPhone 12 Pro Max: What I like

Iphone 12 Pro Max Blue HeroSource: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore

Since the Plus/Max era started with the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014, I've always chosen the largest new iPhone. The size was always the primary factor in making my decision, and honestly, I never cared much about the extras the bigger handset usually brought to the table.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. iPhone 12 Pro: the differences

I'm no camera expert and don't claim to be. And yet, there's no denying Apple has improved the iPhone camera systems over the years. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on the company's iPhone Pro 12 lineup, which includes three rear-facing cameras (wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto) instead of the two (wide and ultra-wide) the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. When you dig deeper, you soon realize there are also subtle differences between the Pro camera systems this year.

These differences, along with the larger display size and better battery life, are what you get for the extra $100 Apple charges for the Pro Max across all storage levels over the Pro model.

Iphone 12 Pro Family HeroSource: Apple

The camera system

Camera buffs will appreciate the 2.5x optical zoom-in, 5x optical zoom range, and digital zoom of up to 12x found on the Max Pro. This compares to the Pro's still impressive 2x optical zoom-in, 4x optical zoom range, and digital zoom of up to 10x.

More zoom makes it possible to snap photos of further away objects, of course. However, the difference isn't that significant. Perhaps I'd think differently if I had a chance to take my long-scheduled Caribbean cruise last fall or the Las Vegas getaway that I hoped to schedule for February this year. With Covid, neither trip happened, so I really haven't had much of an opportunity to use my camera's zoom in any meaningful way.

When it comes to video recording, there are also minor differences between the two Pro models. The Pro Max offers sensor-shift optical image stabilization (OIS), plus the familiar 2.5x optical zoom-in and 2x optical zoom-out. Digital zoom is measured up to 7x. The iPhone 12 Pro comes with traditional optical image stabilization, 2x optical zoom-in, and digital zoom up to 6x.

12 Pro Max Holiday SampleSource: Jay Siegel

Okay, but what does this all mean? Let's start with the Pro Max's 26mm f/1.6 wide-angle camera, which features 1.7-micron pixels versus the 1.4-micron pixels on the iPhone 12 Pro. This difference means more light is taken in when taking shots, while the sensor-shift OIS is what you find on many high-end cameras. With it, the lens doesn't float to cancel out the sensor movement. Instead, it's the sensor itself, making it both mechanically and optically better.

As Rene Richie explained in November, the camera upgrades make the iPhone 12 Pro Max a "low-light monster," and yet "not something you'll need or appreciate all the time." (Translation: You'll be impressed at night; in the daytime, not so much.)

Another camera difference between the Pro models comes from the telephoto lens, which measures 65mm on the Pro Max versus the Pro's smaller 52mm. That heftier telephoto lens means less distortion and more compression, making it ideal for taking portraits and product shots. The downside is its f/2.2 aperture, which isn't as good in low light as the iPhone 12 Pro's f/2.0 aperture.

Overall, the better camera features enhance the value of the Pro Max. And yet, these differences alone probably aren't enough to bring would-be Pro buyers to the Pro Max.

12 Pro Max Holiday Source: Jay Siegel

Now, about the display size

Now let's circle back around to the size difference between the two Pro models. While 0.6-inches diagonally doesn't sound like a lot, it can be, depending on your hand size. It's why you should look at both handsets in person side-by-side before making a choice. Even with my 6.46-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max, I used both hands to perform most functions. With the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, this necessity is even more apparent if for nothing more than to provide stability to a costly device.

I'm getting close to saying we've reached the size limit for iPhones. And yet, I think one final size leap on a future device is possible. Perhaps that will come on the 2022 Pro Max model or long-rumored foldable iPhone. Regardless, I'll take my usual place in the virtual line to get one.

Thumbs up to the battery

One early criticism about the iPhone 12 Pro was its smaller battery than the 2019 iPhone 11 Pro. The change resulted in, on average, one less hour of battery life during video playback. With the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Apple took the reverse approach. Because of the Max Pro's larger display (over the iPhone 11 Pro Max), Apple added a slightly larger battery here. The result: the Pro Max offers up to 20 hours between charges for video playback versus the 17 on the Pro. The difference isn't as noticeable when you stream video; 11 hours for the Pro Max and 10 hours for the Pro.

The camera differences alone probably aren't enough to bring would-be Pro buyers to the Pro Max.

Over the years, Apple and other tech companies have tended to overpromise battery performance for new electronics, especially smartphones. I never considered this dishonest but overly optimistic that numbers achieved in a lab would translate into the real world.

In 2021, I expect my smartphone to survive the entire waking day without needing a battery charge. Over five months, my iPhone 12 Pro Max has consistently exceeded this expectation. By my count, I only have to charge my phone during the day 2-3 times per month. These days typically feature more texting, camera play, and video watching than average. Because of the fast charge, however, performing those rare daytime charges isn't a big deal.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: the hottest new features

iPhone 12 Pro Max reviewSource: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore

It's been nearly 14 years since the first iPhone made its grand entrance and changed the world. Apple's top-selling product has changed considerably since then with each new release. But like all maturing products, the changes made year-to-year are much less noticeable than they once were. Despite this, Apple deserves kudos for most of the changes it made between the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro series.

Snappy

New iPhones always feel quicker than previous models thanks to upgraded internals. The A14 Bionic chip, which is also in the latest iPad Air, is a beast and lives up to Apple's claim it's "the fastest chip in a smartphone." Apple promises a 50% jump in performance and graphics, among other improvements. My iPhone 12 Pro Max hasn't slowed down since the day it arrived. It feels snappy, super responsive, and hasn't had any noticeable processing hiccups no matter what I throw at it.

Our friends over at Tom's Guide said it best; thanks to the A14 Bionic chip, "Android phones should just give up now."

An easy bet to make: The iPhone 12 Pro series will continue to feel like the best thing since sliced Wonderbread — until, like clockwork, its zippiness gets surpassed by the iPhone 13 series.

It still looks brand new

iPhone 12 Pro Max reviewSource: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore

Soon after Labor Day each year, new cases begin arriving for Apple's newest handsets. Though I continue to use a case on each new iPhone, Apple's making it much harder to justify whether one is even needed anymore.

The latest iPhones come with a new Ceramic Shield that covers the front of the device. Made from nano-ceramic crystals, the material is placed inside the glass to provide 4x times the previous iPhone models' drop performance. Coupled with a surgical-grade stainless steel body, the Pro and Pro Max are considered the most durable Apple handsets to date. And yet, there's still room for improvement since the Matte glass on the back of the device doesn't include a Ceramic Shield, making it more vulnerable during falls.

Though I continue to use a case on each new iPhone, Apple's making it much harder to justify whether one is even needed anymore.

I didn't do drop tests for my iPhone 12 Pro Max review, but you can find many online. These tests universally show Apple's Ceramic Shield isn't a gimmick and will protect your investment from falls of at least 6 feet, but probably less than 10 feet. It's a different story for the back, which will probably crack when dropped at a much lower height. It's because of this I still recommend cases for iPhones.

Because I never find myself 10 feet off the ground, I was pretty confident from day one that the front and back of my phone would stand up to regular use. I was less confident about the stainless steel on each side. My iPhones have made it a habit over the years to dive-bomb from chair arms onto the floor. These unfortunate missions have always led to minor scratches. So far, this hasn't happened with my Pro Max, even though it too likes to jump on the floor. Thanks, Apple!

What about 5G and LiDAR?

There's not much to say about 5G cellular that hasn't been said elsewhere; if you live in an area where it's available, great. Otherwise, you'll need to wait for your service provider to make the necessary changes to experience it. In terms of the iPhone 12 series, the support is there, which is good to know but probably doesn't mean much to most users in early 2021. No doubt, like 4G before it, 5G will get better in the coming years, as will the phones that support it.

My feelings about the Pro series' LIDAR sensor are also best described as reserved. I'm glad it's there and strongly suggest users check out LiDAR-supported apps. But, most users aren't getting a Pro model for LiDAR. That might change in the future as LiDAR's use grows, but not with today's handsets and tablets.

A tad too stuffy

iPhone 12 Pro Max: What I don't like

Magsafe Charger HeroSource: Joe Wituschek / iMore

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is an exceptional smartphone and the best Apple has created to date. And yet, some things could be improved, starting with the glass-backing, which doesn't provide the same protection as the front of the device.

Perhaps my biggest gripe, however, has to do with the 12 series' biggest surprise, the MagSafe charging mechanism.

Similar (but not entirely the same) as the Apple Watch magnetic charger, MagSafe is built into the back of the iPhone for wireless charging. Unfortunately, you need a separate MagSafe Charger or a similar product to get the job done. I don't dislike the MagSafe concept as much; I've grown annoyed by how difficult it is to properly connect the iPhone to a compatible charger.

Apple says the magnetic connection is a snap and that's absolutely true when it happens right down to a groovy snapping sound. If you don't line everything up properly, you might fight with the magnets as they try to avoid one another. This difficulty is most noticeable at night, especially for those nearly blind without our glasses. It shouldn't be this difficult.

It's not that I dislike MagSafe; it's just become more difficult to connect an iPhone to a compatible charger properly.

Similarly, I've noticed some third-party MagSafe chargers are even more problematic, as are compatible cases. Again, when both devices are lined up perfectly, MagSafe works as expected, right down to the snap and secure hold. And yet, it's not always seamless, and I'm still slightly annoyed that Apple charges extra for the MagSafe Charger.

Finally, let's briefly discuss the Pro Max's color options. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Silver, Graphite, Gold, and Pacific Blue choices. And yet, each is dull and muted when compared to the iPhone 12's brighter color options. Isn't it about time Apple gives us a (PRODUCT) RED Pro option? How about some lighter colors?

The competition

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini side-by-sideSource: iMore

Short of going to the dark side and buying an Android-based device, there are only a few acceptable alternatives to the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Obviously, the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Pro is the closest competitor. Besides offering a smaller display, fewer camera features, and less battery life, the Pro and Pro Max are identical. I'd say go with the Pro Max if you want a bigger screen and don't mind spending a little more money. Otherwise, go with the Pro.

If you want to save some more money and are okay with a 6.1-inch display, get the iPhone 12. It includes one less rear-camera and an aluminum body. And yet, it's similar to both Pro models by having the same chip, display, and more.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: Should you buy

iPhone 12 Pro Max reviewSource: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore

You should buy this if ...

You must have a telephoto, want the biggest display, and all-day battery life. LiDAR and a stainless steel frame are also nice, but you can get those on the Pro and save yourself some money.

If storage is also a major issue, only the Pro models start at 128GB and continue with 256GB and 512GB versions. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini start at 64GB and extend only to 256GB.

Besides, the latest iPhone 13 rumors don't suggest big changes are on the horizon in 2021. So far, it looks like the newer handsets will feature a 120Hz ProMotion display (like the current iPad Pro lineup) and slightly better camera systems. An "A15" chip is almost certain, but beyond this, the 2021 models aren't likely to be much different than the current lineup.

You should not buy this if ...

Cost is a big factor in making your decision. Mid-year, there are now sales popping up on all of the iPhone 12 series models. Still, prices aren't dropping by that much.

Finally, if you want the latest and greatest, your best bet might be to wait until fall. Both the iPhone 11 Pro Max and iPhone XS Max were discontinued only one year after release. The same fate could strike the iPhone 12 Pro series in just a few months.

4.5 out of 5
iPhone 12 Pro Max colors

iPhone 12 Pro Max

Bottom line: The biggest iPhone in the product's history is a must-have for anyone who wants the biggest display possible.

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